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Primo Maggio: Barre’s Old Labor Hall Marks Ten Years of May Day Celebrations

Over 150 people attended this year's Primo Maggio event at the Old Labor Hall. Photo courtesy of Barre Historical Society.
Over 150 people attended this year’s Primo Maggio event at the Old Labor Hall. Photo courtesy of Barre Historical Society.

by Emily Kaminsky
On May 1, over 800 people joined the Vermont Workers’ Center’s march for “health and dignity” in Montpelier. That same night, over 150 people attended the Barre Historical Society’s annual “Primo Maggio” event, a celebration of Barre’s Italian socialist heritage with food, film and song at the Old Labor Hall. What unites these two events is the significance of May 1st to the labor movement. May Day, or Primo Maggio in Italian, is the international workers’ holiday celebrated by labor movements worldwide since 1890.
Now in its tenth year, the Primo Maggio event at the Old Labor Hall honors the history and ideals of the Italian socialist immigrants who built the building over 100 years ago. “Primo Maggio is the heart and soul of our efforts now,” says Ruth Rottenberg, president of the Barre Historical Society. “Primo Maggio was core to the Italian socialist tradition. We honor that tradition by doing things in the spirit of the holiday. While we don’t stomp on grapes the way they did, we honor them by carrying on with Primo Maggio events featuring food, lectures, music and dance,” she says.
This year’s Primo Maggio event featured a film by Peter Miller called The Internationale, focusing on the history of the song popular with labor movements across the world. Miller’s film was followed by discussion, a group singing of the “Internationale” and other songs in tribute to folk musician and activist Pete Seeger.
Attendees this year came for different reasons. For some, it was a way to celebrate the international workers’ holiday. Northfield residents Goldie Watson and Stanley Osborne, both active in unions locally, were enjoying their first Primo Maggio event. “The labor movement is important for the people of Vermont. We have another generation coming on, and I don’t want things to be worse for them. Unions are of one of the things that hold the line on benefits and rights,” Watson says.
Sue Morris of Marshfield was drawn to the event because of the film, The Internationale. “My mother used to sing it when I was growing up. They were part of the communist party,” she says. Morris had been to the Old Labor Hall previously for Italian dance classes, and her daughter was married at the hall.
Others attended this year’s Primo Maggio mostly to pay homage to their ancestors who built the hall with volunteer labor. Tom Semprebon emphasized that it’s all about the history.  “I have a picture of the 1911 Primo Maggio. And in this picture is my grandmother and my grandfather. From the timing of the whole thing, she was pregnant with my father,” he says. “That’s why the 2011 Primo Maggio was a pretty big deal for my family.”
While the hall remained in the hands of the Socialist Labor Party during the first part of the twentieth century, it had many uses. It was a dance hall, a venue for boxing matches and a favorite spot for weddings. It housed a bottling works for wine and the first Italian cooperative grocery store in the United States and the largest grocery store in Barre at one time. The food store was so successful that they built an extra building to house their bakery.
As the party’s efforts and membership waned, it changed hands and in most recent history served as a tomato re-packing facility. In 2004, the building was in foreclosure and threatened with demolition. Karen Lane, director of the Aldrich Public Library, was aware that there were still documents of historic value in the attic. Before she could get to them, however, the contents of the hall were emptied out and trucked to the landfill without any chance of reclamation.
That precipitous event was the beginning of the modern history of the hall: the Barre Historical Society was revived, funds were raised to purchase the building and the process of restoration has brought the hall back into use. Lane and her husband Chet Briggs, who passed away in early January, have been major proponents of keeping the labor hall going. In fact, this year’s Primo Maggio seemed to be an informal tribute to and in memory of Briggs, whose relationship with the hall was a labor of love. Briggs served as the Barre Historical Society’s president up until his passing.
While much of the labor history of the hall is in the past, the Barre Historical Society has a vision for keeping the hall relevant now and into the future. In addition to ongoing renovations, the society is considering the possibility of making the top floors into a labor movement library and reviving the bakery building to train young bakers. Whatever the future holds for the hall, the society board is mindful of the need to continue honoring the hall’s history. “It’s a responsibility of ours to be good stewards of the building, as well as to document and celebrate history,” says Lane. “That’s why we keep Primo Maggio going.”